Rex Bellamy

Mats Wilander, age 23, is a rumpled-looking man with a tidy game and a tidy list of grand slam singles titles: three French and three Australian. The third French championship came his way with sudden ease yesterday when, after Henri Leconte had served for the first set at 5-4, Wilander won the final 7-5, 6-2, 6-1 in an hour and 52 minutes.

Wilander and Steffi Graf are halfway towards Grand Slams. For both, Wimbledon may present a stiffer challenge than Flushing Meadow. "Obviously, I'm going for them", Wilander said yesterday. "But winning a Grand Slam is still a dream.

"I expected this match to be more like the first set was - very tight. I thought he would play a little better and come to the net more. The first set was very important. If he'd won it he would have had the crowd with him. But they weren't really there when he needed them."

That first set was a beauty, rich in contrasts. Leconte, twice a break up, produced some dazzling shots and varied the pace and pattern of his game with admirable discipline and control. When he let fly with that top-spun backhand, the shot must have rekindled visions of youth for another left-hander, Rod Laver, who was sitting a few yards away. But Leconte tends to be adventurously flashy and one wondered how long he could maintain his tactical discretion and technical control. Moreover, it became clear that Wilander was anticipating the nature of Leconte's assaults far more easily than Leconte was guessing the direction of Wilander's passing shots.

"I wasn't playing fancy", Wilander said "but I was trying to keep him deep on his backhand side. I passed very well - that was the key to the match." That was too modest, too simple. Wilander could not have hit those passing shots but for the fact that his brain and footwork were in perfect harmony. Wilander's early warning system told him where to go: and he ran or slid into position with time to spare. When under pressure, he was wonderfully flexible in adjusting the angle of the racket head. Thus, time and again, Wilander kept rallies going until he could transform adversity into opportunity.

When Leconte was serving at 5-4 and 15-30 in the first set, there were hints of rain and thunder. He served a double-fault to go 15-40 down, grabbed the next point, but then - having won the play for position - hit a wild backhand volley to lose the game. That was decisive. Wilander won six consecutive games at a cost of only eight points. Leconte's discipline began to fray. He had tried to be patient and husband his energy, but it had done him no good. So Leconte began to bang the ball about, desperately hoping that a gamble might restore the losses from logically discreet investments.

The score tells you what happened: an exciting shot-maker was outclassed by a better match-player. Leconte finished the match with shale-spattered clothing. He had taken a fall while misreading, once again, a Wilander passing shot. At 0-5 down in the third set, Leconte saved two match points and won the game: whereupon 16,500 voices (most of them, anyway) tried to raise him from the dead. But by that time the casting director in charge of such productions had decided that Leconte would play the corpse, Wilander the grave-digger.

(The Times, 6th June 1988)